Our friends at Sea Shepherd UK have been working in marine conservation since 2005. The dedicated group of volunteers use direct action and education to stop the illegal killing of marine wildlife and reduce plastic pollution.

Rob Read, chief operating officer, tells us how the organisation was initially set up to fill a void between protest-style groups and enforcement agencies of the world.

We spoke to Rob to learn about the biggest issues facing marine life today, and how we can use direct action to make a difference.

What do you think are the most pressing issues facing marine life today?

If the ocean dies, we die. It’s as simple as that. When seas become dead zones, the ocean loses its ability to absorb CO2 and this will have a massive impact on people around the world.

Living whales, for example, absorb huge amounts of CO2 and they’re great fertilisers – providing iron and nutrients which causes huge blooms of phytoplankton. Phytoplankton produce a least half the oxygen created on planet Earth, and absorbs 30% of the carbon emissions generated by human activity – the same as all land-based ecosystems.

One of the biggest threats to marine life is plastics in the ocean and as plastic production increases, we are not even close to understanding the real impacts.

This is a huge problem – around 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear is lost at sea each year. Plastics will be in the ocean for hundreds, if not thousands, of years and are indiscriminately killing wildlife. It’s not just the impact that the fishing industry has on wildlife populations, or how fishing trawlers destroy the seabed – we also have to think of all the ropes, nets, plastics and pots that are lost or thrown overboard – it all stays in the ocean and continues killing wildlife for centuries.

This is the legacy, to conserve and cleanup, for as long as it takes. It’s an almost impossible situation. The fishing industry needs to change, and we need to look at natural materials to replace plastic.

How is Sea Shepherd tackling the issue of plastic pollution?

Our latest ghost net campaign uses boats and special skilled divers to retrieve lost and discarded fishing gear. We refer to it as ‘ghost gear’ due to its ability to continue killing wildlife long after the fishing boats have left it behind.

We have experienced volunteer divers and Sea Shepherd boats to survey UK waters to recover and recycle discarded fishing gear which is then safely disposed or recycled.

One thing about Sea Shepherd campaigns is that there’s always a tangible, quantifiable impact. If you are physically removing debris from the ocean, you know that those ropes or creel pots are not going to be killing animals for decades to come.

You have been involved in Sea Shepherd for more than a decade. How have you seen the organisation change over this period of time?

Although we are a growing organisation, we are still very much a grassroots organisation. We’ve seen some real change happening as a result of our campaigns – saving species, rescuing animals tangled in nets. We have a tangible, quantifying effect that not only inspires our dedicated crew but also inspires our donors because they see we’re having a real effect.

We also try to inspire other groups, activists, and politicians to make change. We want to make that physical change, but our campaigns also provide video footage, evidence and pressure from the public which helps create real momentum for future positive change.

How can people get involved and take action?

There are a lot of ways people can help. If you do eat fish, do your research about how it’s caught, where it’s caught, ideally if you live in a wealthy country and have other options – don’t eat fish at all. That is the ideal solution to reduce our impact on the ocean.

The choices you make day-to-day have a huge impact, buying plastic-free products and researching the type of meat or fish you’re buying. The vast majority of salmon is grown in very intensive fish farm cages which cause all kinds of issues on the local environment including pollution and disease. The fish are being fed other species of fish, which hugely impacts wild fish populations.

People can also join Sea Shepherd UK or other conservation groups, to get involved in raising awareness, joining our national or overseas campaigns, or conducting beach or river clean-ups. You can also help us through fundraising, donating, and sharing news from our campaigns.

Sea Shepherd UK works tirelessly to defend the smallest marine animals, right up to the largest majestic whales. Find out how you can support Sea Shepherd UK here.